Spring is a season for cherry blossoms. However, for many of the 28,500 of American military personnel forward deploying in the Republic of Korea (ROK), this is the season for living in desolate bunkers. Every year, as winter gives way to spring, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff conduct annual combined military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. The command and field exercises elicit a steady barrage of North Korean vitriol, making this also a season for censure. Pyongyang propagandists produce variations on an old theme: that ‘U.S. imperialists and South Korean reactionaries’ are bringing the peninsula to the brink of nuclear war. North Korean missile launches are but the punctuation points of this disinformation campaign.
Why does North Korea overreact to what the ROK-U.S. alliance sees as routine, annual defensive exercises? There are several reasons, and understanding them is crucial to deterring and dealing with North Korea.First, the exercises accentuate ROK power and capabilities, thereby highlighting North Korea’s relative vulnerabilities. The exercises showcase the advanced arsenal of the ROK and the relative obsolescence of North Korean conventional arms. In addition, military drills with a powerful ally, the United States, demonstrate the joint and combined arms capabilities of the alliance, further highlighting the North’s deteriorating conventional military strength.
Second, the annual military exercises impose considerable psychological pressure on the leadership of North Korea. The sheer fact that some 200,000 troops (almost one-third of the total strength) of the ROK military are placed on the highest level of alert and ready for combat becomes a necessary preoccupation for Kim Jong-un and his generals. Furthermore, U.S. and other international forces from Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere remind North Korea that any misdeeds will incur a serious reputational cost and staunch international response.
Third, the exercises exacerbate North Korea’s financial woes. The economic disparity between the two Koreas favors the South when it comes to funding a show of readiness and strength. Responding with an equal or greater show of force would mean a major setback to the North Korean economy. This explains North Korea’s asymmetric responses of missile launches, nuclear threats, and information warfare. But Pyongyang’s attempt at shock and rhetorical awe have become as routine as the alliance’s defensive exercises themselves.